If you or someone you know has a problem with procrastination, you’ve probably chalked it up to a deficiency in time management skills or self-control. But my guest says there are deeper reasons underlying procrastination, and he’ll unpack what they are today on the show.
Joseph Ferrari is a Catholic deacon, a professor of psychology, and a foremost researcher and expert on procrastination who has authored or co-authored 400 professional articles and 35 books and textbooks. Today on the show, Dr. Ferrari explains the psychological dynamics behind procrastination and what you can do to counter them. He also shares the difference between regular and chronic procrastination, which of your parents you probably got your propensity to procrastinate from, and how procrastination can manifest in indecision.
Resources Related to the Podcast
- Select books/textbooks Joseph has authored/co-authored on procrastination:
- AoM Article: Stop Procrastinating Today With Behavioral Science
- AoM Podcast #444: How to Use the Procrastination Equation to Start Getting Things Done
- AoM Article: Get Better Without Torturing Yourself — The Power of Temptation Bundling
Connect With Dr. Joseph Ferrari
Listen to the Podcast! (And don’t forget to leave us a review!)
Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Brett McKay here and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. If you or someone you know has a problem with procrastination, you’ve probably chalked it up to deficiency in time management skills or self-control, but my guest says there are deeper reasons underlying procrastination. And he’ll unpack what they are today on the show. Joseph Ferrari, is a Catholic deacon, Professor of Psychology and a foremost researcher and expert on procrastination, who’s authored or co-authored 400 professional articles, 35 books and textbooks, today in the show. Dr. Ferrari explains the psychological dynamics behind procrastination and what you can do to counter them. He also shares the difference between regular and chronic procrastination, which of your parents, you probably got your propensity to procrastinate from. Now, procrastination can manifest in indecision. After the show is over, check at our show notes at aom.is/whyyouprocrastinate. Alright, Reverend Dr. Joseph Ferrari, welcome to the show.
Joseph Ferrari: Hi, I’m so glad you included me in your list of podcast. Thank you.
Brett McKay: Well, you are a professor of psychology, you have done a lot of research and writing about procrastination. I’m curious, what led you down that research path in your career?
Joseph Ferrari: I think I have close to 400 publications, and one of the main lines of research that people know me as is the study of chronic procrastination, I don’t do as much on that anymore, I do now join international colleagues, I have work in Iran, Israel, and I’m trying to remember the other, Turkey is the other country, so I work with people internationally, what brought me to this topic is… Well, there’s a concept in research called research is me search, perhaps you’ve heard of that.
Brett McKay: Yes.
Joseph Ferrari: Where people study topics that… All about them. Well, that’s not my case, people know me. No, I am not a procrastinator, I’m quite the opposite. I’m not a reformed procrastinator or whatever the people use that jargon terms for. I got into this quite honestly through graduate school in late 1980s, I was studying my doctoral… Doing my doctoral dissertation and research at Adelphi University in Garden City, Long island in experimental Social Psychology, and I’m in a class being taught by a social psychologist who was transitioning into clinical psych, and she was teaching a course on self-defeating behaviors, masochism, choosing to suffer as she was moving into clinical, she was studying these particular topics and self-handicapping was one of the concepts, and I remember again, you gotta realize this is middle to late ’80s. I raised my hand and I say, I don’t know where it came from. I said, is procrastination a self-handicapping strategy? And she says, Oh yes, yes, yes. Well, I’m not the one who just lets things die, I raise my hand. Well, I raise my hand again. Can you tell me a little bit more about that? I don’t know she goes, but I’m sure somebody has done that study, so in the back of my notebook, this is before laptops and stuff, I write down procrastination and I go to the library and I go and I look up the topic and I find nothing on the topic.
Alright, there was about 200 citations, but they were conference presentations, and most of the research was on writer’s block or on career indecision, but I wanted to understand what are the causes, what are the consequences, why do people actively choose to avoid things that they need to do? Procrastination, and I find nothing. Now, for your listeners in graduate school, there is a saying, at least we were always taught, when you go do your thesis or your dissertation, you can either do a line of research that everybody else is doing so you can join the bandwagon, which is fine, you’ll have references, but you’ll be lost in that crowd, or especially for your dissertation, you can take us into a new direction and go into something that people haven’t studied and you will have lines of research questions you can ask that’ll last you for years and exactly what happened for a number of years through the 1990s, I was the only one studying this topic, and every study I did was publishable because no one looked at the development of it, the relationships of it, how does it relate to regret… Tell me how it… Excuse making in procrastinating, everything all these kind of things.
So it was very fruitful for me, now again, I’ve moved into other topics, I do other things, but it’s still the topic that a lot of people associate with me, so I didn’t do it to find out about myself, I did it because it was a novel area, and that’s what scientists should do. Now, my current area, the last few years has been looking at clutter and how does clutter impact our lives again, nobody’s studied that. Hoarding separate. So yeah.
Brett McKay: I thought it was interesting that there wasn’t a lot of research about procrastination because it seems like this is an age-old problem that humans have, and there’s stories in ancient Greece talking about procrastination. Aesop’s fables, the grasshopper and the ant, and even in the Bible, the Parable of the ten Virgins is a story of procrastination.
Joseph Ferrari: So a number of years ago, there’s a very famous Psychology teaching conference that I approached… This was back in 2010 when my popular book had just first come out called still procrastinating, and that’s why the title is that, and I’ll get to that in a minute, but I approached them and I said, Would you like me to come and talk on this. No, it’s not a real problem. I was told, and I was like, What! No, no, students don’t have a problem with procrastination. I’m like, what! What are you talking about? Of course it is. And then they wanted me to jump through hoops to show that it was really a legitimate thing and have focus table, at one of the meetings, and I did and everybody came and still I wasn’t gonna now, so I never got to present there… I don’t go there anymore. The title of my popular one was called Still Procrastinating? The No Regrets Guide To Getting It Done. It came out in 2010, some might say it’s a little old, but I don’t think so. How did it get that title?
Well, here’s the history on that. If I may, I told you Brett, I have lots to say, news reporters would call me and say to me in the 90s, in the 2000s and say Dr. Ferrari, this new book came out, and this person is taking this angle or that angle on procrastination, and I would say, Tell me more, I don’t know the book, and I would say no, ’cause it’s not a time management issue. To tell the chronic procrastinator just do it would be like saying to a clinically depressed person, cheer up, it’s not gonna work. That’s not what it is, it’s an active avoidance strategy, it’s not that they’re lazy. Oh, they work very hard on doing other things, things they are not supposed to be doing, than what’s important? So I called it still procrastinating because I was trying to tell the readers and anyone listening now, yeah, you’ve tried these time management books and I bet you they haven’t worked, and they’re not going to work.
Alright, what you need to understand is that this is something much deeper. Something much more active. Now, you mentioned a few minutes ago, why haven’t people study this. It’s so common. Yes, one of the things I’ve shown, ’96 was the first publication where I showed that 20% of adult men and women are chronic procrastinator. Now, what does that mean? That means they do it at home, they do it at school, they do it at work, they do it in relationships, you know they’re going to RSVP late, they’re gonna wait till the gauge goes on empty before they get more gas, they’ll get the third message bill to have to pay it.
Alright, they’re actively… You know they’re not gonna get you your Christmas gift or their birthday gift or their birthday card on time, it would always come with, Oh, I’m sorry, I missed it. Because that’s who they are. Alright, 20%. Well, that’s all you might think, No, that’s higher than depression, phobias, panic attack, alcoholism, substance abuse, and yet our cultures see this as a funny topic. Oh, they are just procrastinating. Oh, I’m gonna listen to that podcast tomorrow. No, this is… I don’t take the jokes serious because I’ve seen too much damage along the way, too many lives broken, too many people have missed things in life that they regret later on, so I finally wrote that book saying, still procrastination, try this.
Brett McKay: See, that’s interesting, you talk about how 20%. And this cuts across demographics, so men and women…
Joseph Ferrari: Men and women, young and old. In fact, not only in the US. One common concept I get from people is, well, this may be a US thing no. In fact, we find 20% in Britain, Australia, Canada, Germany, Polish, Austrian, Czechoslovakian, Spanish, Irish, Italian, Peruvian, Venezuelan, Turkey, Israeli, Saudi Arabia, Japanese, Korean. Now, I’ve done work in Iran finding this men and women, young and old, urban and rural communities, all races, now, does that mean is genetic Ferrari you’re mentioning all these people, it’s just human nature, whatever that means, we’re born through evolution no, it’s because our culture. Cultures western, and as we see, even Eastern and Middle Eastern, because our cultures don’t give the early bird the worm anymore. There was a time you did things ahead of time, you got rewarded for that. We punish for being late, oh you’re gonna pay a fine, if that bill is not paid on time, you’re going to pay higher prices for this or that last minute, we punish you, but we don’t reward you for being early.
Brett McKay: Right. Well, I wanna go back to this idea. So this 20%, these are chronic procrastinator?
Joseph Ferrari: Yes.
Brett McKay: This doesn’t… Everyone… And you have this phrase, you say in your book, everyone procrastinate, but not everyone is a procrastinator, and that’s what you mean, the people who are procrastinators there’s 20%, but everyone procrastinates from time to time.
Joseph Ferrari: I don’t know if I would say everyone, but… Yes, I would say the vast majority, you might… Everybody might put off a task, alright, and that doesn’t mean you’re a procrastinator, for example, I’m not a fan of cutting my grass, it’s something I have to do only to water to fertilize to cut it again and again. So I delay it as much as I can. Maybe not once a week, I do it every 10 days or every two weeks. Alright, so does that make me a procrastinator? No, anybody who knows me knows you don’t have 115 page resume by being a procrastinator, you don’t publish 15-20 articles a year being a procrastinator. No, I’m not a procrastinator, do things on time, because I value other people’s time. If I may let me go down. Talk about that. Okay, you see the chronic procrastinator doesn’t understand that the world is not about me, it’s about we. And if I don’t do what I have to do, then the next person can’t do their thing and the next person can’t do their thing. Oh, but I find it hard. Oh, I don’t like it. It’s uncomfortable. But it’s not about you.
There’s an old expression, If you want something done, give it to a busy person. Well why? ‘Cause they’re busy, ah because that person values your time and their time, they realize that you have things and I’m going to help you. It’s not about me, it’s about all of us. And so, yeah, so everybody puts a task off, but not everyone’s a chronic procrastinator.
Brett McKay: When does putting something off become procrastination, like clinically?
Joseph Ferrari: Great question. Alright, what’s the tipping point as some people might say, when does it become delaying and all that. We don’t have an answer to that. When it interferes, like so many things in life, when it interferes with your life, when it prevents you from living an effective life, when other people’s abilities are imposed on it, then yeah. And let me say that procrastination is not the same as delaying, if I’m stuck on the air tarmac for my plane not to take off, and it’s delayed four hours for getting somewhere, I didn’t procrastinate. It was delayed. Pondering, if I ponder something, I’m not procrastinating because I am gathering information.
I am active, some people call it active stillness, you’re still actively collecting information and doing things, so don’t think delaying or pondering or just waiting is procrastination, procrastination becomes a problem when it’s your maladaptive lifestyle, when you do it in all different settings. I like to define it in my 2010 book as intentionally delaying a task, and it’s irrational and it prevents you from reaching your goal, so you’re intentionally delaying and it doesn’t make sense to do that, and you’re not gonna achieve things, and you feel uncomfortable about it.
Brett McKay: So procrastination is the intentional putting off of things you don’t wanna do in all situations, but it’s maladaptive. It’s irrational. So why would someone do something? That’s maladaptive or irrational? Why do people procrastinate? Do people procrastinate for the same reason or for different reasons.
Joseph Ferrari: A variety of reasons. Now, some people have said that there are types of procrastinators, and we really haven’t found that. When I began the literature I did talk about arousal and avoidance procrastinators, some people wait till the last minute for a thrill-seeking experience, arousal. Well, a couple of studies came out years later that found, well, it’s not arousal, they’re not doing it for that, it’s not the thrill-seeking. You’ll hear people say, I need to wait till the last minute ’cause it gets me going, it gets me excited to do this, and I found that in a self-report study, but they did follow up studies and it didn’t replicate that, interestingly enough, they did self-reports too, I would love any listener out there to come up with some good physio measures to find out if these people who claim to wait till the last minute really do have arousal a change physiologically, no one’s ever looked at those measures. I only found that.
So some people claim they wait because they want a thrill, but look, it’s really fears, fear of failure is the most obvious, if I never finish something, I can never be judged.
You see, and I can come back and tell you that I’m really good at it, because as social psychologists, we say I’d rather people think I lacked effort, than ability. Let me try to pick that apart for you. Break that open for you. Okay, in social psych, we try to ask the question of where do people attribute their cause of their behavior to be internally or externally, and what are some of the factors and in helping us explore that, social psychologists have talked about two aspects, does the person think they have the ability or… And do they apply effort… Ability is a much more stable concept, either I have it or I don’t know, I could develop it. Sure, but that takes time. Either you have the ability or you don’t. Effort is much more fluid. Effort can change, I can try harder. So if I have to give an image to other people, and what I have found in over all these 30 years of research is that procrastinators are very concerned about what others think about them. I don’t want you to think bad of me, so if I have to give a negative image, I’d rather that you think I lacked effort than lack ability.
Because if I finish something and it doesn’t meet the standards, it doesn’t meet your standards my standards, if it isn’t good enough, then you’re gonna think less of me. Gee, he can’t cut it. He just can’t do it. You see, and that sticks. But if I don’t try, if I can tell you, Oh, I’m really good at this, if I had more time, I’d show you. Oh, I really get this one much better, if only you can give me more time. This is the best I can do on this. Well, you see, then I’m blaming it, it’s not me, it’s something else. So they’d rather have to protect that fear of failure, they’re protecting their social… We call it social esteem, I’m sure you’re familiar listeners and Brett to self-esteem, that’s how I feel about myself. Self-esteem, but social psychologist, we like to look at social esteem, how do others think about you, how do others feel about you, and you see by procrastinating, I can kind of protect my social esteem. Sure you may not think I’m dependable, but you’re not gonna think I’m bad because our culture doesn’t encourage people, as I said earlier, to get things done on time. Fear of failure, even fear of success can cause people to procrastinate.
Now you might be listening and thinking, why? Why fear of success? Why should I put something off if I’m gonna do well because I might not be able to live up to that the next time, I don’t know if I can keep that standard. So if I delay, if I don’t finish that law brief on time, if I don’t show up on the date on time, then you don’t have to go out with me again or give me another law brief. That’s even more impressive. So it’s a very protective strategy that culturally 20% internationally, we say it’s okay. Well, we won’t hold you to the deadline.
Brett McKay: So this is just for self-protection, aspect of procrastination. This is the self-handicapping. This is kind of…
Joseph Ferrari: It’s part of self-handicapping. Yeah, and let me talk about that if I may, unless you have your question for me.
Brett McKay: No let’s talk about self-handicapping ’cause I think this is really interesting.
Joseph Ferrari: A lot of people these days, I don’t know who else you’ve been talking to, but if readers who are listening they say procrastination is what they call a self-regulation failure problem, in other words, the person is unable to regulate their time, regulate the tasks that they have to do, we used to call this years ago, delay of gratification, they can’t regulate the… They’re thrilled, the excitement, the pleasure they might get out of doing projects, so they wanna do the good ones now, and they don’t wanna delay and wait for the bad ones. Well, I agree with that, but here’s the problem with those authors and those people is that they say that’s the only reason people procrastinate and I say, No, this is a complex phenomenon, it’s more than that. Yes, for some self-regulation is the issue, but for others, Brett, as you just said, it’s self-handicapping, it gives me a nice ready excuse for why I don’t have something done on time, you know human beings are great excuse makers.
In my book and in the 2010 book Still Procrastinating. There’s a chapter called The But However, it’s all about excuse making. Human beings are great excuse-making, there’s always a reason. And we listen to them when we go, Oh, yeah, that makes sense. It’s never my fault. It’s always something else. That is the reason. The problem is with these people. As you listen, you go, Oh, okay, that makes sense. And they go, Oh, that one makes sense. They never take ownership. So there’s always a reason. Yeah, so if I can blame something else, it’s not my fault, it’s this thing in our culture, we do a lot of that. So I’ll put something in my way, I’ll put an obstacle in my way, or I’ll claim I have some handicap, it’s called choosing handicaps or claiming a handicap, those are the two lines of research in this field. I have something else, it’s not my fault, and I come across looking good.
‘Cause here’s the cool thing, Brett. I put the obstacle in my path. Let’s say, I don’t know, I have a basketball game coming up, and I love pizza, and so right before the game, I eat half a pie. And I don’t do well on the game. I could say, yeah I missed the shots, and I didn’t dribble well enough, and I didn’t do good shots at the foul line, because if I hadn’t, it’s not my fault. I’m really good, see, I’m a really good basketball player, but it’s that pizza. If the pizza hadn’t affected me. So I have an excuse, or what we would say is, I can disclaim me, but here’s the other side. Life is interesting. Doesn’t mean you’re gonna fail.
What if you led the team to win the game, and you ate that pizza? Then you, well, we would say in psychology, you enhance your self-esteem, your social esteem, because now you look even better, because you can say to people, Yeah, yeah, we won, and I sunk those shots, and I even had a pizza on top of that and look how good I am, see? So either way, you come across looking good. Either blame it on something else, you discount yourself, or you enhance yourself. Does that make sense?
Brett McKay: No, that makes perfect sense. So bringing this back to procrastination, someone can put out, like a student puts off a report that they had to turn in. They put it off, and they do it at the last minute. If they don’t do well, they can say, well, I just didn’t have enough time. I had so much else going on in my life this semester. I just didn’t have the time. So they have an excuse. But if they do do well, they can say, man, I’m just really smart, because despite all this stuff I had going on in my life, I was able to knock this out of the park.
Joseph Ferrari: Look at that, man. And then that leads to that, and I work best on the pressure, you see what happens? Exactly, exactly. I have a nice, ready phenomena that I can blame. If the problem is, I just was telling my students this about the whole notion of cramming. People wait till the last minute, and sometimes it does pay off, but most of the time it doesn’t. And what do they remember? That time it paid off. So I’ll tell my students, yeah, you remember that time in fourth grade, you crammed at the last minute, and you got that great job on that exam, but look at all the exams since, when cramming really screwed you up. If you had only been calm and relaxed, yeah, you lost one question, but you gained 12 more. But no, no, I remember, man. Cramming at the last minute, it paid off, you see, because we remember that.
So yeah, the person will hold onto that one time when, yeah, the pizza didn’t affect me, man, I can do this. And not all the other time.
Brett McKay: We’re gonna take a quick break for words from our sponsors. And now back to the show.
Okay, so sometimes people procrastinate as a way to self-handicap. It’s a way to avoid taking responsibility for something not working out or them not doing well. And you also say that perfectionism can be related to procrastination. Like people will keep putting off doing something because they’re afraid they can’t do it perfectly. And so they just, they never work on it, or they get close to finishing, but they don’t finish it because they don’t think they can get it just right. And it sounds like the remedy for these reasons to procrastinate is just to get more comfortable with failure, not be afraid to fail.
Joseph Ferrari: Look, I didn’t do this study, but studies have shown that the most healthy individual, the person best adjusted, person best able to live life, succeeds 85% of the time. Well, that means they fail 15% of the time. That’s right, that’s right. But our culture says you have to have 100% or you’re nothing. No, no, you succeeded most of that. Now, 85 is not mediocrity. That’s not 50%m it’s more than half. All right, but you succeeded most of the time. That 15% failure can be a life lesson. You can learn from this.
The Native Americans say that the white man has it wrong. We wanna walk through, they say, through clear water. We want life to be easy and walk through clear water. Native Americans say, no, no, you really want muddy water. Why muddy water? Because with muddy water, you put more energy, you try harder, all right, the obstacles. Life shouldn’t be clear. Look, if all I had in life was sunny days, what would I wind up with? A desert. I need rain, not thunderstorms tsunamis or hurricanes, okay, but you need some rain in life because nothing will grow without some of that water. But we have this notion that we can’t fail.
Again, I’m not saying fail most of the time. That’s not what the data says. No, you’ve gotta strive to succeed. You’ve gotta be good at what you do. But so what if you fail? This is what I’m telling my intro students in intro psych, this is the place to raise your hand and ask me a question. It’s not a stupid question. I might have a stupid answer, but how are you gonna learn? It’s okay to ask. You got the next four years of college to ask those questions and be wrong because when you get out in the real world, people are gonna expect you to succeed more often.
Brett McKay: And as you said earlier, it sounds like procrastination isn’t a time management issue, it’s a mindset issue.
Joseph Ferrari: You’re right. There actually have been two meta-analyses. Now, do you know what that is, Brett? Do you need me to explain for the listener?
Brett McKay: Yeah, it’s like studies of studies. Like they look at a bunch of studies and kind of see what they say.
Joseph Ferrari: In a meta-analysis, what the scientist does is they take, I don’t know, a dozen, two dozen, whatever. They take all the studies that have happened before, put them into a formula, and they look at what’s effective. So there have been two meta-analyses on the effective treatment of procrastination. And in both of those, the least effective, please, listener, listen to this. The least effective technique to help people who are procrastinators is time management. So two independent studies have been looking at these. What is the most effective? And I’m sorry, listener, you may not like to hear this, but CBT. You need a good professional who is trained in cognitive behavior therapy, CBT, because you need to learn how to change your thoughts and your actions. The time management approach is not gonna work because you know what, folks? You can’t control the wind. You can only adjust your sails. What does that mean? That means you can’t control time. We don’t manage time. What do we manage? We manage ourselves. No matter what you’re doing, if you’ve been listening to us, time has gone by. You can’t get that back, whether you like this podcast or not. Time has moved on. It’s like a stream. It’s moving. I can’t control time. I don’t manage time. I manage me. I manage who I am. I can’t control the wind. I can only adjust my sails.
Life happens. Things will happen. And the Japanese like to say, and if there’s no wind, you row. You can control that. One last thing, Brett, if I may, about this is be patient. Be patient with yourself. Have you, listener, and I don’t know, Brett, have you ever heard of the story about the little boy with the butterfly and the cocoon?
Brett McKay: Oh, yeah, yes.
Joseph Ferrari: Okay, well, be patient. And for those who aren’t familiar, let me briefly explain to you. So this boy has this thing, this cocoon, and inside is this butterfly, and he sees the butterfly trying to get out, and it’s struggling, and it’s breaking it open. So what does he do? He wants to be kind. He wants to help. So what does he do? He breaks open the cocoon to let the butterfly fly out. Well, what happens then? The butterfly flies, flies, flies, and then it crashes and dies because we need the struggles in life. The struggles in life help us grow. You might be thinking, listener, I’m listening to this, it’s not me who’s procrastinating, but I got a kid, I got a spouse, a partner, I got a coworker, and I got to help them do that. No, you’ve got to sometimes let people fail. My Italian grandmother had a great expression that we used, but it loses in the translation. But she would say, for some people, they will not get off the beach until the water hits their behind. Now, what does that mean? That means you can tell somebody all along, hey, the tide’s coming, you’re gonna get wet, you really should move, you got to do this. Some people will not move till they get wet. Notice I didn’t say drown. Never let somebody hurt themselves or drown. But sometimes you’ve got to let the person fail. You’ve got the kid who’s not doing papers in on time, let them get some Fs.
You’re the administrator at the school and you don’t want the kids to fail. You can’t always break the rules and say, well, let you register for that class four weeks late. You missed it. You’re the employee and your boss said I needed this thing. I’m not saying fire the person, but simply say, sorry, I can’t give you that extra day off that I promised you for this or that. You have to let people sometimes get wet. Because only after getting wet a few times will they move their blanket. So you got to be patient. Let the butterfly come out of its cocoon. You can’t manage time. Please, listener, understand it, manage yourself.
Brett McKay: Something you talk about in your book is that procrastination is learned. How do we learn procrastination?
Joseph Ferrari: Yeah, so much in our culture today, we want to turn to biology. I’m born this way. It’s just who I am. No, no, I guess because I’m a psychologist and my early training was in operant and learning conditioning, I believe you’ve learned to be the person you are. And that’s so optimistic, listener, because that means you can unlearn. Yeah, it’s hard. Where did you learn it? Well, one of the first studies on the development of procrastination I did in ’93, a couple of studies, was looking at parental influence. Who causes kids to become procrastinators? Mothers or fathers? And the answer, interestingly enough, was fathers. Fathers cause kids to become procrastinators, which is nice, because we always blame mom for everything. But usually, procrastinators report a poor relationship with their father, lots of conflicts, and a shallow relationship. And the father’s parenting style was that of authoritarian.
What does that mean? That’s that cold, demanding father who says, hey, as long as you live under my roof, you do what I say. I don’t want to hear any lip. You do it and you do it now. Well, the kid can’t rebel, so what does the kid do? Pulls back and just takes their time, which makes the father even more angry. And very interesting dynamic, okay, we find the father is authoritarian and the mother is indecisive. So the child runs to mommy and says, mommy, daddy wants me to do this, I get this. Well, I don’t know, honey, he is your father. And this is what… So you got a very interesting dynamic in life. And so we learned to do it, and I replicated that in a couple of studies.
In 2017, I hosted the 10th biennial meeting, international meeting on the study of procrastination here at DePaul University in Chicago. When I brought them together, I had a researcher from Colorado come, and he actually looked at identical twins, because if there is a genetic basis to procrastination, you should find it in both twins. Well, they found nothing genetically in terms of this. He just supported 14 years later, what I showed earlier. And now I’ve recently saw an article recently in a prestigious journal, that again showed the learning aspect. So don’t turn to biology, it’s not biological, it’s learned, it’s culturally determined, because we see internationally, cultures are saying, it’s okay, we don’t want to pressure you, we don’t want you to feel bad. Life is short, life is too short.
Yeah, I’m a Catholic clergyman, I’m a deacon. And if anyone has listened and knows their Bible, you know what the Psalmist tells us. In the Psalms we hear, we live 70, 80 years of we’re strong. That’s right, we have a short time here. My God, leave a legacy, make a difference, make the world better. Don’t procrastinate, don’t put it off, do what you can. How do I help other people? Because I don’t have a lot of time. What is 70 to 80 years to earth that’s millions, billions of years old? So don’t sell yourself short. Yes, you can change. Yes, you learned to do this. You’re not born this way. Yes, you’re not alone. Change and make life better. You’re going to fail, but you’re also going to win sometimes. If you want to walk on water, you got to get out of the boat.
Brett McKay: So let’s say someone who has got a problem with procrastination and they go to a cognitive behavioral therapist, like what sort of things would they be doing, like the therapist helping this person walk through to help them overcome their procrastination?
Joseph Ferrari: I’m not a therapist, but they would probably ask them, so what would be the worst thing if you failed? Does life really end? Let’s play that scenario out. We need air, we need water, we need security in life, but you don’t need an A on that test. You’d like to get the A, you’d be happy if you got the A and mommy and daddy might like you and the boss might give you a raise, but you don’t need. So if it were me, I would help them. Let’s look at the difference between wants and needs and why are you making wants, things that I want, needs, gotta haves, if you would. So I would hope, again, I’m not a clinician and I’m not a cognitive therapist, but I would assume, I would hope they would help them break apart these attributions and these things, exploring what would be the worst problem.
And again, if I was a cognitive behaviorist, I would also say to them, now, between now and next week, I want you to try A, B, and C. And if you can’t do A, B, and C, definitely do A. Give them homework, give them something that they can work on, some actual tangible behavior. You gotta start small, change happens small.
Brett McKay: Let’s say that someone’s listening to this and they feel like they have a problem with procrastination and they might be thinking to themselves, well, it’s not that I’m afraid of failure, I’m okay with failure, I’m not a perfectionist. They’d say, the reason I procrastinate, I just don’t find the things that I procrastinate on interesting. Like taxes, like taxes are so boring, who wants to do taxes? What’s going on there?
Joseph Ferrari: Yeah, what happens is our culture is not making doing taxes or early Christmas shopping attractive. Let’s take taxes. Taxes, I don’t wanna do my taxes, it’s unpleasant. Yeah, our culture has it wrong. If you don’t pay your taxes by April 15th in the United States, you get a fine. So it makes sense that you wait to send your check-in on April 12th or April 14th or something. Yeah, if you owed money. Why should you pay your taxes earlier if there’s no incentive? So I say, why don’t we say February 15th, you get 5% off what you owe, or some denomination. I’m not an economist, but they can figure it out. You can’t do it in January because you’re still collecting all your paperwork. I get it, okay. But if you can owe money and you can send the money to us earlier, like February 15th, we’ll let you save 5%, March 15th, 3%, April 15th, owe it all.
It goes back to what I said before, we’ve got to give the early bird the worm. So what can you do if you don’t like to do your taxes? Well let’s culturally change this and start rewarding people for doing things early. For yourself, if you’re an individual and you’re procrastinating, reward yourself for doing things early, all right. Limit your options, don’t overload your options, so you say, I just got too many to do. Outsource if you can, if you have employees. Take your time to make a good informed decision, but not delay, pondering is good, and get things done. Hold yourself accountable.
All right, let me give you one quickie social esteem kind of social aspect. We’ve known since the ’60s a thing called public posting. Researchers found out years ago that if you post something that you want to do, that you’re going to do in life, you’re more likely to do it because other people will see it. These were early studies, people would post things outside their office and before social media. But now we have social media, so why not post that, friends, I need to get this thing done, and I’m telling you, if I don’t get this done, don’t let me buy the tickets to this concert, or don’t let me join you when we go out on Friday at this or that, whatever. I can’t answer what people are doing, but you know what I’m saying. So have yourself publicly held accountable for doing that. Will it work for everybody? Probably not. The 20% person will engage in saying, that’s nice, Ferrari, but for me, blah, blah, blah, or however it doesn’t work, remember, they’re the excuse maker, that are great excusers. But you might get some people to work things more.
I’ll give you one more. The Premack principle, that also comes up from the ’60s, where we found, David Premack found that if you take a high rate of behavior, you can make that a reinforcer for a low rate of behavior. Oh, too much jargon. What are you talking about, Ferrari? In other words, if you can take something you like to do, you can make that a reward for something you don’t like to do. So you don’t like to do the dishes? Well, for every six dishes you do, you’ll watch 10 minutes of Wheel of Fortune, or whatever it might be you like to do, or you’ll listen to your favorite hip hop artist for 10 minutes. You want to listen to them longer, do 10 dishes. So you make a behavior you like to do as a reinforcer for something you don’t like to do. Does that make sense?
Brett McKay: That makes sense. Katy Milkman, she’s a social psychologist, and she has this idea of temptation bundling. So if there’s something you don’t like to do, then you do something you like to do along with that thing. So she gives the example of exercise. So if you don’t like running on the treadmill, what you can do is during that time, you can use that time as the only time you get to watch your favorite show on Netflix.
Joseph Ferrari: Or like I tend to do, I have to do as a clergyman to say morning prayers, and they can be tedious, and I don’t like doing on the treadmill. So I do my morning prayers on the treadmill. So something I have to do, I’m doing it so I know for 20 minutes, I’m going to be exercising as I read these prayers. Sure. Yeah. I never heard it called bundling. I always heard, but it’s an offshoot of this Premack principle from the ’60s.
Brett McKay: So you mentioned earlier this one type of procrastination. So I think what typically we think of procrastination, we think of tasks like taxes, cleaning the house, writing a paper. But you also done some really interesting research on procrastinating decision-making, and that’s…
Joseph Ferrari: Indecisive, decisional procrastination.
Brett McKay: Yeah. What contributes to indecision? Is it the same sort of factors that contributes to procrastination?
Joseph Ferrari: Yeah. That’s a great question because some people don’t see, they think of procrastination as only behavioral. You make a good point, Brett. That’s true. No, you can also be cognitive, which we call in the field decisional procrastination or indecision. Small area of research, listener, if you’re looking for something to really do. It’s really kind of interesting and odd that cognitive psychologists have not explored this. They have looked at response time, how long it takes people, and they say that is indecision. But because I remember talking at decision-making conferences, they would say, oh, yours is a different angle than what we normally do. You’re looking at more the personality style and how that, and yes, that’s right. So I’ve looked at how indecisive search information, experimental tasks, by how much information and how much information on any one item that they had to do. How did they search? What’s their search patterns? We’ve looked at their reaction time speeds.
And so really quick, okay, what I’ve found is that indecision is really more an aspect of cognitive failures that they do. The person ruminates about their failures more than their successes. In psychology, we talk about rumination and a small body of literature on savoring the good times. So we ruminate, but it’s not about the failure, we’re ruminating about the good times. I like to tell students it’s always like the way we were from the Barbra Streisand song. You look back on the memories of all the good times, oh yeah, it was a horrible relationship, but boy, I remember this or I remember that. So they’re focusing on the failures. Indecisives are much more likely to be easily distracted and daydream, and they engage in a lot more self-critical thoughts on who they are.
We looked at time orientation, not only for indecisives, but behavioral procrastinators. What do they focus on, the present, the past, or the future? Rarely the future, they tend to focus on the past and failures. Now this is controversial, and I talk about, maybe controversial, I talk about it in the book, attention deficit and procrastination and indecision. Because one of the characteristics of defining someone with ADHD is that they procrastinate. Well, what I found in the only study that was ever published on this, with two normal populations, but one clinically diagnosed ADHD population, was no relationship between procrastination and attention deficit. What was related was boredom proneness and distractibility. Those are related to attention deficits. But again, back to experimental studies, we’ve shown that with simple or complex tasks, indecisives tend to take longer.
I was interested in those studies, wondering, is it maybe a physiological thing? Maybe indecisives can’t decide because they just have cognitive inability, they just can’t do this. We found, no, it didn’t matter. They were choosing to delay. So it shows, again, it’s much more motivational than physiological. The person chooses to do that. And as I said before, we looked at how they search and make decisions.
So what can you do if you’re indecisive? Limit your number of options. I live out here in the western suburbs of Chicago, and there is a movie theater that has 31 movies. You don’t bring the indecisive to 31 movies. Why? Because you stand there with them and you say to them, well, what do you want to see? And I can tell you, they’re going to say to you, I don’t know, what do you want to see? And you say, no, you decide, I don’t know, I don’t know, there’s too many options, right? And then you look at your watch and you say it’s 7 o’clock and most of the movies are starting at 7.15. Come on, what are we going to do? I don’t know. Now, this is a brilliant strategy on the indecisive. If I let you make the decision and it’s a dud, it’s not my fault, you chose it. You said we should watch this movie. At the end of the movie, they walk out, why did you choose that? I just wasted $14, oh, that was terrible. Why did you choose that car? I never liked that car. Why did you choose that dining room set? I didn’t want to live here, whatever.
So if you let somebody else make the decision for you, it’s not your fault. So you don’t give them tons of options. You limit the options and you have them make the decision because they’re going to let you make the decision when push comes to shove. Because if I don’t have to make the decision, it doesn’t look bad on me, makes it look bad on you. And if the decision works out well, if we love the car, the vacation was a great space we went to, I loved living in that neighborhood, then everybody’s happy. But it goes back to, Brett, before that, protecting self and social esteem is not my fault.
Brett McKay: So it sounds like if you have a problem with putting off decisions or being indecisive, one, limit your choices. And then two, just you have to start practicing making decisions. And accept that sometimes you’re going to make bad decisions. That’s okay. As long as you’re 85% of the time you’re succeeding, you’re okay.
Joseph Ferrari: You’re okay.
Brett McKay: Well, let’s do a recap of what we’ve talked about with procrastination. First thing, it’s something that’s learned, so it can be unlearned. And the way you do that, it’s not through time management because procrastination isn’t a time management problem. It’s a mindset problem. And you have to start getting more comfortable with failure to overcome that mindset problem. And if you’ve got a serious problem with procrastination, you’re a chronic procrastinator with everything you do, then you might want to look into something like CBT or cognitive behavioral therapy to change your thinking patterns.
Well, Joseph, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?
Joseph Ferrari: Oh, sure. You may want to try the 2010 book called Still Procrastinating? The No-Regrets Guide to Getting it Done. You can buy it through Amazon. That would be one source. If you’re interested in from a scholarly point of view and you want to learn more and you find this is a topic I need to research or it relates to something else that I want to study, then I invite you to get Procrastination and Task Avoidance: Theory, Research, and Treatment 1995. It’s old book, but it’s still considered the classic textbook, if you would, in the field. It’s expensive because it’s hard to get. If you want to deal with how do I… Maybe you’re a teacher or a professor, you’re an academic, you’re an administrator in a school setting, and you want to know how do I treat procrastination in the academic setting, then I invite you to get Counseling the Procrastinator in Academic Settings. It came out in 2004, so it is a little, also getting a little old, but it’s still a really good book. These are the three classic books in the field that I would recommend. And I hope they help people. I really do. Listener, I really hope you realize you’re not a bad person. There’s no blaming here. It was just saying you can change and you should change because life’s too short. I’m hopeful for you, I guess is what I’m thinking.
Brett McKay: Fantastic. Reverend Dr. Joseph Ferrari, thanks for your time, it’s been a pleasure.
Joseph Ferrari: Thank you. Thank you for listening to me. And thank you, listener, for listening for the whole thing. And please don’t say, but however, for yourself, go do it, go change.
Brett McKay: My guest today was Dr. Joseph Ferrari. He’s the author of the book, Still Procrastinating? The No-Regrets Guide to Getting It Done. It’s available on amazon.com. Make sure to check out our show notes at aom.is/whyyouprocrastinate, where you can find links to resources and we delve deeper into this topic.
Well, that wraps up another edition of the AOM podcast. Make sure to check out our website at artofmanliness.com, where you can find our podcast archives, as well as thousands of articles that we’ve written over the years about pretty much anything you’d think of. And if you haven’t done so already, I’d appreciate it if you take one minute to give us a review on our podcast on Spotify, it helps out a lot. And if you’ve done that already, thank you. Please consider sharing the show with a friend or family member who you think would get something out of it. As always, thank you for the continued support. And until next time, this is Brett McKay, reminding you to not only listen to the AOM podcast, but put what you’ve heard into action.